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John Thayer Hemenway, 1924-2016; ‘Instantly Fell in Love With the Place’

  • John Hemenway rides his bicycle to the post office in Strafford, Vt., in July 2013. He rode his bicycle until he was 90-years-old. (Amy Donohue photograph)

  • John Hemenway's high school senior portrait at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Mass., where he graduated in 1942. (Family photograph)

  • John Hemenway speaks to a group of visitors at his Strafford, Vt., property during the presentation of his 1992 Tree Farmer of the Year award. (Paul Harwood photograph)

  • Ruthie, the dog of John Hemenway, heads up the center aisle of Town Meeting in the Strafford Town House on March 6, 2012. “She snuck in,” Hemenway said of the pet, who roamed throughout the meeting. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, April 10, 2017

Strafford — John Hemenway fell in love twice at the same time.

The first was with the woman who was to become his wife, Phoebe McCreary.

The second was with the town of Strafford, where McCreary’s family had a summer home.

They went hand in hand, and the relationship gave birth to four children and one of the greatest conservation projects in Vermont.

From such seeds great maples, poplars and birches grow.

Hemenway was a student at Harvard during the 1940s when he met Phoebe McCreary, a Radcliffe student and daughter of Harvard professor Frederick McCreary. The McCreary family had bought the birthplace of Vermont’s former U.S. Sen. Justin Smith Morrill in Strafford at auction in the 1930s, and they would invite the tall, lanky World War II vet out to their summer home when he was courting their daughter.

There was no doubt that Hemenway had been swept off his feet by the spirited fellow anthropology major, but the handsome Yankee Brahmin — his forebears had settled in what is now Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood in the 1600s — also became smitten with something else: the town of Strafford nestled on a branch of the Ompompanoosuc River that was surrounded by forest-rich hills that appeared to protect in Brigadoon-like fashion the hamlet’s cluster of 18th-century homes from the intrusion of modern life.

Hemenway’s draw to Strafford even became something of a family joke.

“He instantly fell in love with the place,” said Hemenway’s daughter, Phoebe Hemenway Armstrong. “My aunt would say, ‘I always felt your father married my sister because he loved Strafford so much.’ ”

Growing up in the Boston suburbs, the Hemenway children would spend part of each summer in Strafford. When Phoebe Hemenway passed away in 2009 after 61 years of marriage to John Hemenway, he moved out of their “retirement village” and, at 85 years old, moved to live year-round in the town he first set eyes on six decades earlier.

Hemenway quickly became a familiar figure around Strafford. Until he was 90, he could be seen pedaling his bicycle (defiantly without a helmet) with a wicker basket hanging from the handlebars to the store and post office. In March, he attended the annual Town Meeting, during which his daughter Lucy’s Jack Russell terrier Ruthie was known to “sneak in” and wander the aisle during deliberations.

John Hemenway died at his home in Strafford at age 92 on Dec. 21 after a brief bout of pneumonia. His daughter Lucy and son John were present. Hemenway had been in declining health over the preceding two years, yet he continued to welcome a stream of friends and visitors into his home at 18 Brook Road just around the bend from the United Church of Strafford.

Although he was a part-time resident of Strafford for most of his life, Hemenway’s legacy in Orange County will survive in perpetuity: approximately 2,800 acres of preserved forest bordering Tunbridge and spanning corners of Strafford, Chelsea and Vershire. Known as Taylor Valley, the five-square mile area is one of the densest blocks of forest in the county, a grove rich in maple, ash, poplar and yellow birch.

The land, penetrable by a 7-mile network of unmaintained Class 4 roads, also is home to just about every upland creature on four legs, including deer, fisher cats, bobcats, coyotes, fox, bears and even moose as well as those on two, such as wild turkey.

But Taylor Valley is no precious environmental preserve. It is a working forest that produces between 300,000 to 500,000 board feet of New England hardwood annually that goes into the making of such products as furniture, flooring and cabinets. Hemenway’s vision was to create a sustainable wood-producing forest that yielded a steady supply of material while at the same time was managed for the environment, said foresters who worked with Hemenway and came to know him and his family well.

“He put his life into that Taylor Valley project,” said Fred Huntress, a retired Maine forester who worked for Hemenway at the New England Forestry Foundation, the nonprofit group that promotes conservation and sustainable management of private and municipal forests in the region and which Hemenway headed as executive director for 35 years before retiring in 1988. “It was his adopted home.”

A Different Path

Trampling around the forests of New England and jawboning with backwoodsmen, loggers and tract owners probably was not the obvious career Hemenway’s family envisioned for him when he was growing up on the Hemenway estate in Canton, Mass., near the foot of the Blue Hills in the same home his father had lived.

The senior Hemenway had done well for himself working at the old-line Boston securities firm Jackson & Curtis (later to merge with Paine & Webber and now part of Swiss Bank giant UBS) and retired early. Hemenway, like his father, attended both Noble and Greenough — the prep school for eminent Boston families such as the Lowells, Putnams and Saltonstalls — and, naturally, Harvard.

But like so many young men of his generation, Hemenway’s college career was interrupted by World War II. Enlisting in the Army the February after graduating from high school in 1942, he at first was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division — Hemenway had been a New England skier — but an illness sidelined him before the unit was dispatched to Italy and he was transferred to an infantry division where he became a combat engineer.

In August 1945, Hemenway was on a ship in the Pacific when he learned that Japan had surrendered following the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A little later, while on “R & R” leave in Tokyo — and in a wartime reunion not even Hollywood might conjure — Hemenway was climbing the steps of the imperial palace when he glanced back only to see his older brother, Augustus, who had been serving in the Navy, walking up behind him. The brothers from Massachusetts had not seen each other in three years.

“He never thought of his Army time as illustrious” said his daughter Phoebe. “But I think it was just too horrible for him to talk about with so many people he knew killed.”

Back stateside after the war, Hemenway returned to Harvard, where he met Phoebe McCreary, the daughter of an English professor. Now in the class of 1948, they married after graduating and settled in a house they built on the Hemenway family estate in Canton. And like his father before him, Hemenway went to work at the recently merged Paine, Webber, Curtis & Jackson. But although Hemenway had a lifelong interest in investing, he was never comfortable with the continual demand to drum up clients for pitching stocks and bonds.

“He didn’t like calling people up and selling,” said Phoebe.

Like many post-war couples, John and Phoebe got busy raising a family. Daughter Phoebe S. was born in 1949, followed by Nathaniel T. in 1951, John F. in 1956, and Lucy L. in 1958. As the family grew, it moved into different houses on Green Street in Canton, including one formerly occupied by the kids’ grandmother, which Phoebe said was so drafty in winter that everyone wore parkas inside.

At the same time, Hemenway inherited a sense of public mission from his New England forebears: his grandmother, Harriet Lawrence Hemenway, co-founded the first chapter of the Audubon Society in Massachusetts, and his grandfather, Augustus Hemenway, donated 210 acres for parkland to the Metropolitan District Commission, a forerunner to Masachusetts’ Department of Conservation and Recreation.

And, despite growing up in the burgeoning Boston suburbs, nature was always close: The Hemenways’ Canton estate was adjacent to the 7,000-acre Blue Hills Reservation, one of the largest preserved parks within a metropolitan area in the country.

“He grew up in a world of trees and Bantam chickens,” said Phoebe (a particular favorite one was named Henny Penny).

But it was while working in Boston’s financial district that Hemenway met Harris Reynolds, a noted landscape architect known as the “father of town forests” who was director of the New England Forestry Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 1944 to develop sustainable forest management for land owners that draws upon tested conservation principles.

Reynolds tapped Hemenway to join the board of the Massachusetts Forest and Park Association in 1950 and that led him a year later to join Reynolds at the NEFF as treasurer. Then when Reynolds died suddenly from a heart attack in 1953 the board turned to Hemenway to succeed Reynolds as executive director — and wasn’t too interested in hearing Hemenway turn it down.

” ‘Whether you like it or not, you’re going to be a director’,” Hemenway related how the job was presented to him to the Valley News in a 2013 profile about him and his Taylor Valley project.

“I had no formal training at all, but I picked it up,” he said.

Notwithstanding the inauspicious beginning, Hemenway spent the next 35 years at the Forestry Foundation, where he was the driving force in the organization’s nascent years, hiring more than 20 foresters to advance sustainable forest management who were in the vanguard of a new profession of environmental consultants.

And when hiring a forester, Hemenway would make a quick gut decision. Huntress, a graduate of the University of Maine’s forestry program, was looking for work after being discharged from the Army in 1957 and remembers learning that the Forestry Foundation was in need of foresters. “I called John and got on the train in Lewiston to meet him in Boston. After a short conversation, Hemenway offered Huntress a job on the spot as the organization’s consulting forester in Maine.

“I was at work 8 a.m. the next morning,” said Huntress, who spent his entire career at the Forestry Foundation and retired in 2001. “John was a perfect gentleman, a real gentle man. He wasn’t loud or boisterous. What you saw is what you got.”

Hemenway’s knack for knowing the right forester for the job was legend in the business, said Mike Whitney, who himself worked as a forester for the Forestry Foundation and later went on to become chairman of LandVest, the timberland consultant and luxury real estate firm. Whitney recalls visiting Hemenway at his office on Court Street in Boston, appropriately dark and cluttered with maps, charts, files and books, like that of a scrivener out of a Melville or Hawthorne novel, to ask if Hemenway could recommend a forester to hire.

“I said to John that I needed a good field forester, who could analyze 10 acres but also run a logging operation. He just starts rifling through a pile of papers on his desk and pulls one out and says, ‘here’s the man I think you should be looking for!’ He hands me a resume and there’s a look in his eye and a big smile. I go ‘perfect!’ ” Whitney said he never doubted Hemenway’s recommendation, but nonetheless remembers asking, “Look, you better give me another one just so my buddies think I checked it all out.”

Hemenway’s pick turned out to be prophetic: The resume was that of Steve Magnan, a young forester out of the University of Massachusetts, who later become head of LandVest’s Timberland Division and a director and principal in the firm.

Turning to Vermont

All the while Hemenway had simultaneously been cultivating a personal interest in acquiring and preserving timberland. His first foray began with the purchase in 1950 of 1,000 acres — for $4 per acre — near Vershire from Frederick Taylor. Taylor and his brother, Efford Taylor, had accumulated 2,000 acres beginning in the early years of the 20th century.

The Taylors harvested the tract for lumber for nearly half a century. But the Depression of the 1930s, a devastating hurricane in 1938, and the death of Efford in 1941 led the family to begin selling off parcels of the property to buyers, of which Hemenway was the first. Few saw any potential in Vermont land that had bustled with farms in the 19th century before farmers picked up stakes for more arable land of the Midwest.

“No one else wanted it,” said Nat Hemenway, of Strafford, John Hemenway’s son.

But with a nutrient-rich limestone substrate that makes the soil ideal for tree growth, especially sugar maples, Hemenway saw an opportunity in Taylor Valley to put into practice his vision of long-term sustainable growth-harvest-regrowth of the forest that would produce hardwood and repay investment over a period lasting human generations — a timeframe known as “tree time.”

“When I took over the New England Forestry Foundation, my interest (in forest conservation) really took off,” Hemenway is quoted as remembering in Taylor Valley: Investing in Forest Time, a book he wrote in association with Elizabeth W. Ferry and Karen Thorkilsen and privately printed in 2012. “Visiting Vermont frequently, I became interested in surrounding lands and the possible opportunities for forest investment. I had the investment mentality because I had been in the investment business for five years. And it seemed to me that land was incredibly cheap.”

Cheap indeed. By 1975, Hemenway had assembled a tract of about 2,800 mostly contiguous acres from different sellers of what now comprises Taylor Valley for a total cost of $124,587, according to the book, much of it for between $4 and$11 per acre. Hemenway’s son, John F. Hemenway, now a Boston attorney, says the land in total is assessed today at “under” $1 million, its realizable value held down because most of the land is under conservation easement to remain timberland and cannot be developed for commercial purposes.

Although Taylor Valley generates income from logging, John said his father from a financial standpoint “probably would have done better to put that $125,000 into a stock index fund. But a stock index wouldn’t have given him the pleasure the forest gave him, touring the land in a truck, talking with foresters and loggers, meeting for coffee with his forest manager. The people side of it was a real tangible thing for him.”

Hemenway, in fact, enjoyed nothing greater than the weekly inspection tours of Taylor Valley he made with his forest manager, Paul Harwood. Every Monday morning the two would meet for breakfast at Cafe 232 (now Hattie’s Kitchen) in South Strafford, where the corner table to the right of the door was waiting for them. Afterward Hemenway and Harwood would venture into Taylor Valley, sometimes in an all-terrain vehicle if the Class 4 roads were particularly impassable, entering from either the Strafford, Vershire or Chelsea side on a rotating basis.

During the three-hour tour, Harwood would brief Hemenway on the sections that had been selected for thinning and which species of trees had been marked for harvesting, or what was being done to maintain the seven miles of roads and network of trails.

“He was not as mobile as you’d might imagine the last five years,” Harwood said. “Getting around could be difficult for him.” Hemenway used a cane, which he called a “walking stick,” to steady his gait. And, of course, he was typically wearing a tweed sport coat and khakis, a signature of his New England manner even as such vestiges of courtly style had long disappeared from the scene.

“He’d show up at a cook-out wearing a jacket and tie,” said Phoebe Hemenway.

Strictly observant all his life about eating healthy, he also was “obsessive” about maintaining his teeth in good working order, Phoebe Hemenway said (son John Hemenway was fond of saying about his father in later years that “when he’s not at the dentist, he’s flossing his teeth”). Hemenway’s war on the evils of sugar would even move him to confiscate the kids’ trawl of candy at Easter and Halloween when they weren’t looking, Phoebe and John remember.

Hemenway remained physically active in retirement, playing tennis well into his 80s, skiing, and buying a canoe to paddle on Miller Pond in Strafford. He continued his interest in investing, declaring health care products company Johnson & Johnson, which saw its stock climb from $6 share in 1987 to $117 in 2016, the best stock he ever picked.

And he swelled with pride over the academic achievements of his two grandsons, Matthew Healy and Samuel Healy, never forgetting to mention that “they both graduated magna cum laude!” when talking about them with friends, said their mother, Phoebe.

In June, when the Forestry Foundation holds its annual meeting at its headquarters in Littleton, Mass., John Hemenway will be remembered, said former longtime staff forester Fred Huntress, with the planting of a tree in honor of his lifetime dedication to conserving forests and his work at NEFF.

Appropriately, the tree will be the one known around the world as the symbol of New England woods.

“It will be a sugar maple,” said Huntress. “That was John’s favorite tree.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.